New implicating WhatsApp messages submitted against Okagbare in court, another athlete fingered

In a voicemail Okagbare left for Lira in June last year, she allegedly arranged for him to supply both her and a male athlete with growth hormone and EPO.

New implicating WhatsApp messages submitted against Okagbare in court, another athlete fingered
Blessing Okagbare

The ten-page court paper submitted by Agent Ryan Serkes of FBI before Honourable Sarah Netburn of United States Magistrate Judge Southern District of New York not only reveals the background to the latest doping scandal but the involvement of a male sprinter believed to be another Nigerian.  

The moment the clock stopped, the motley crowd at Yaba College of Technology Sports Center, Yaba in Lagos, venue of the All Nigeria Athletics Championships which serve as trial for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games erupted, singing and dancing.

 It was June 18, 2021, and the Nigeria queen of athletics Blessing Okagbare had run the 100 metres in 10.62sec to win the Nigerian Olympic trials; a time, back then, bettered only by Florence Griffith Joyner and one that had seemingly made her the fastest woman alive.

When Okagbare turned to see the clock for herself, there was not a hint of concern that she might have attracted some unwanted attention. 

The 32-year-old former Commonwealth Games champion burst into a fit of wild celebration, wriggling with joy on the ground before bouncing back to her feet and running towards the main stand.

In the end, the time was rounded up to 10.63 and was not recorded as an African record because of a following wind of 2.7 metres per second. The limit is set at 2m/s.

It did nothing, however, to dull Okagbare’s sense of excitement six weeks before the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Four days later she messaged Eric Lira, the man now facing criminal charges in New York for allegedly supplying her with two banned, performance-enhancing drugs.

“Hola amigo,” she wrote in messages detailed in a complaint filed in a Manhattan federal court this week. “Eric my body feel so good. I just ran 10.63 in the 100m on Friday. With a 2.7 wind. I am sooooo happy. Ericccccccc, whatever you did, is working so well.”

According to evidence uncovered by the FBI in a joint investigation with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) and the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), Okagbare had been supplied by Lira, a 41-year-old “naturopathic” therapist from El Paso, Texas, with Human Growth Hormone and the blood-boosting drug, EPO.

In October, the AIU revealed that Okagbare had tested positive for EPO two days after that astonishing performance in Nigeria. She was not notified of that until August 20 and continued to prepare for Tokyo.

Okagbare is named as “Athlete-1” in the court documents but the details — that she ran 10.63 on June 18 — make her easy to identify. By July 19, she was training in Slovakia. Lira sent her a message: “What you did . . . is going to help you for the upcoming events. You are doing your part and you will be ready to dominate.”

On the same day she received a visit from drug testers. She would discover on July 30 that the blood sample they took had been found to contain growth hormone. By then she had already won her 100m heat at the Olympics. On July 31 the AIU announced that she would not be contesting the semi-final after failing a drug test.

More revelations from WhatsApp messages 

Using an encrypted messaging app through which they communicated, Okagbare messaged Lira in a panic from Japan. “Call me urgently,” she wrote. “They said one of my results came out positive on HGH . . . I don’t understand.”

In messages Okagbare, who in addition to the two failed tests has been charged by the AIU for refusing to co-operate with anti-doping investigators, refers to growth hormone as “honey”. It has long been a popular choice of drug cheats, partly because of its effectiveness but also because it is so difficult to detect — only in blood tests, rather than urine, and a few hours after taking it. As one doping expert explained, the authorities need to know in advance that an athlete is using growth hormone, unless they just get lucky.

In Tokyo, there was further controversy for Nigerian athletes. On August 1, a day after the AIU announced Okagbare’s suspension, ten members of Nigeria’s 23-strong track and field team were forced to withdraw from the Games because they had not been tested enough to meet the minimum requirements set out in the World Ant-Doping Agency (Wada) anti-doping rules.

In July, Usada had been contacted by a whistleblower who had found banned drugs in the Florida residence of an athlete known to Okagbare and referenced only as “Athlete-2” in the affidavit filed in the New York court. 

The whistleblower took photographs of the packages, one of which was addressed to Okagbare, and passed the evidence to Usada, who shared the information with the FBI and the AIU.

Okagbare denies any wrongdoing. But by the time she returned to the US from Tokyo in disgrace, on August 2, the US authorities were waiting for her.

Officers from Customs and Border Protection “conducted a limited review of a mobile phone in the possession of Athlete-1” (Okagbare), and assisted by a special agent from the FBI “preserved copies of a series of WhatsApp messages, including a series of WhatsApp encrypted voice messages” between the Nigerian sprinter and Lira, dating back to November 2020.

In one message sent to Lira five days before that extraordinary performance in Lagos, Okagbare wrote: “So I took 2000 ui of the E [erythropoietin, EPO] yesterday, is it safe to take a test this morning?”

He replied: “Good day . . . 2000 ui is a low dosage.”

To which she then replied with a message that demonstrates why whereabouts failures have to be taken seriously by anti-doping agencies. “Remember I took it Wednesday and then yesterday again. I wasn’t sure so I didn’t take a test. I just let them go so it will be a missed test,” she wrote.

The case demonstrates the powers of investigation the authorities in the US now have compared with other countries. When UK Anti-Doping seized medical data at the Manchester headquarters of Team Sky and British Cycling in 2016, it had to inform them in advance that it was coming.

Thanks to the Rodchenkov Act, named after Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov and passed in 2020, supplying banned drugs to athletes participating in international sports competitions is now a federal offence.

Lira is the first person to be charged under the new laws. The US attorney said he had distributed the drugs “for the purpose of cheating” at the 2020 Olympics. He has also been accused of conspiring to violate drug misbranding and adulteration laws, with drugs from Central and South America “misbranded” before being supplied to athletes. He faces up to ten years in jail.

The various locations detailed in the affidavit, signed by FBI special agent Serkes, are potentially significant.

Let’s start with El Paso, where Lira is based. It is also home to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), where Okagbare studied; a college with a rich history in track and field, with Bob Beamon, the former world record-holder for the long jump and 1968 Olympic champion, among its alumni.

The college was celebrating another Olympic title for a former student last summer, with the Kenyan middle-distance star Emmanuel Korir winning gold in the men’s 800m. He is coached by Paul Ereng, the Kenyan 1988 Olympic 800m champion who has been employed by UTEP since 2003.

Korir still lives in El Paso, and now works as a “graduate volunteer assistant coach” when he is not training. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by anyone else linked to UTEP but the case does raise the question of whether Okagbare knows Lira from her time in the Texan city as a student.

Another key location is Jacksonville, Florida. Okagbare moved there from El Paso to work with Rana Reider, the American coach formerly employed by UK Athletics and now the subject of a US Center for SafeSport investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. There is, however, no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Reider in relation to the doping charges.

It is in Jacksonville that Reider continues to run the Tumbleweed Track Club that boasts some of the world’s finest athletes — Olympic champions among them — and some fine British sprinters too.

When UKA learnt of the SafeSport investigation, it told its athletes they would be taken off funding if they did not find another coach. 

Daryll Neita, a finalist in the women’s 100m in Tokyo, responded accordingly. Adam Gemili, who finished fourth in the 200m at the Rio Games in 2016, is among those who has chosen to stand by Reider.

It is not yet known if “Athlete-2” is another member of Reider’s group. All that is known at this stage is that it is a male sprinter who was struggling with a hamstring injury in the build-up to the Olympics.

In a voicemail Okagbare left for Lira in June last year, she allegedly arranged for him to supply both her and a male athlete with growth hormone and EPO.

“Hey Eric, I just sent you $2,500, can you confirm it via Zelle?” she said. “And also, remember I told you [Athlete-2] had hurt his hamstring, so anything that will help the hamstring really heal fast you can actually bring it as well, OK?”

The whistleblower, referred to in court documents only as “Individual-1”, found packages containing banned drugs in a Jacksonville residence that had been occupied by the male athlete. Described by the FBI as an associate of both athletes, they had been asked by the male athlete to enter the property to pack up his belongings and transfer them to a storage facility.

It was then that they discovered the banned drugs, contained in packages that also included Mexican drugs bearing Lira’s return address. The package seemingly sent to Okagbare was labelled with a separate address.